Ah, the sun is shining and the outdoors is calling. Who are we to refuse? Accept the call. Get some exercise. Learn new things. Be done in time for lunch. That, my friends, is my idea of a great walk and there are 50 of them in 50 Great Walks in Florida. The following six can be found right here in Marion County.
But don’t think it is all dirt trails and backpacks. Nope, that’s hiking. Instead think historic neighborhoods, botanical gardens, nature areas—some paved, some not—and throw in some delightful surprises. So grab a sweater and your water bottle, and set out. What better way to enjoy Central Florida’s crisp, cool weather than with a brisk walk through some of our area’s most beautiful locales.
East Meets West
Land Bridge Trailhead, Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, South of Ocala
I like walks that have a payoff. After almost a mile of woods-walking you’ll reach the land bridge. Packed with dirt and landscaped with trees and bushes, this bridge, which connects two parts of the Cross Florida Greenway, is for wildlife, walkers and horseback riders. No cars allowed.
There is no charge for this walk. Start by parking at the trailhead, nicely appointed with restrooms and picnic tables. Step through the fence posts onto the dirt trail and voilà! You’re transported into an old oak hammock. This is an easy to moderate walk, but unfortunately it’s not wheelchair accessible.
Not far from the trailhead, walkers come across a fallen oak tree. It may not be too far into the walk, but it’s a great spot to sit and enjoy the view for a moment. My dogs, Suzi and Annie, particularly liked jumping over the tree. Yes, well-behaved, leashed dogs are welcome here.
The Land Bridge Trailhead 475A is located at 11100 SW 16th Avenue, Ocala. Contact the Greenways and Trails Field Office in Ocala at (352) 236-7143, or visit floridagreenwaysandtrails.org.
Walk with a Lake View
Lake Eaton, Ocala National Forest
Did I mention there is one walk in the boonies? Well, here we are. Before I forget, make sure to take a potty break before setting out on this walk. There is an enclosed chemical toilet but no running water. This free walk totals 2.1 miles and is part of a dirt loop trail that is wheelchair accessible.
The day we walked this trail for book research, we chanced upon great blue herons at the lake and witnessed a pair of eagles flying to their nest. And let me tell you, what a treat it was! Along the trail you’ll see gnarly scrub oaks twisted in startling shapes and a plethora of other shrubbery and wildlife.
The Lake Eaton walk originates on Forest Road 70 off County Road 314. Pick up free brochures for this and the nearby sinkhole trail at the Ocklawaha Visitor Center on SR 40, or call (352) 236-0288 for details. In the meantime, check out fs.fed.us/r8/florida.
Flowers, Waterfalls and Headsprings
Rainbow Springs State Park, Dunnellon
On the first and third Saturday of each month from November through April, Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon has a guided walk through the gardens and headspring area. And it’s well worth the trip!
The walk begins at the most civilized hour of 11am and no reservations are necessary. The entrance fee to the park is just $1 per person and the walk lasts 30 to 45 minutes.The worn brick walkways at Rainbow Springs are uneven and can be slippery at times, making for a moderately difficult walk, so wear shoes with good traction. This particular walk is not wheelchair accessible.
Rainbow Springs was once a private attraction that featured some beautiful waterfalls. Luckily for us, they still exist today.But while beautiful (and you can’t beat the sound of running water either), the waterfalls pale in comparison to the breathtakingly clear water of the spring’s headwaters. As a special treat, plan your visit for February or March when the azaleas are blooming. And don’t forget to bring your camera!
Rainbow Springs State Park is located at 19158 SW 81st Place Road in Dunnellon. If you’re interested in finding out more, you can view the park’s program at floridastateparks.org or call (352) 465-8555.
Two Rivers Run Through It
Silver River State Park, Ocala
Alright all you dog lovers out there, did you know our four-legged friends are welcome in Florida’s state parks on a six-foot lead? Pack up Fido and head out to the Silver River State Park. You, the ever responsible dog owner, will of course bring cleanup baggies. The 1.2-mile round trip has a great payoff halfway through the walk—a spectacular view of the Silver River.
Before setting out, ask for a trail map at the entrance when you pay the $4 fee, which by the way is good for up to eight people in the car (so bring your friends, too). When you reach the river, you’ll no doubt see some fish in the shallow water, maybe some nearby wading birds and possibly even an alligator. If you’re really lucky, you may even spot monkeys on the opposite shore.
After your walk, make sure to take some time to tour the park’s cracker village. It will give you some new insight into how Florida used to be. Guests can visit the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center for just $2 and they’re open to the public every Saturday and Sunday.
And while we’re talking extras, don’t forget to brown bag a lunch. The large picnic area, complete with a playground, makes this is a great place for an outdoor meal. This dirt-trail walk is moderately easy and mostly handicapped accessible.
Silver River State Park is located at 1425 NE 58th Avenue (Baseline Road) and can be reached by calling (352) 236-7148. Check out floridastateparks.org for more information.
A Peaceful Walk
Sholom Park, Ocala
Sholom Park is perhaps one of Ocala’s best-kept secrets. This peaceful meditation park features a formal garden, a savannah, a labyrinth and a koi pond, not to mention a forest. The opportunities to relax and reflect are plentiful. You can pick and choose your paths, but consider this: if you walk every trail in Shalom Park your grand exercise total would be a little over two miles. All of the walkways are paved, making this totally wheelchair accessible. The best part? There is no entrance fee. Dogs aren’t allowed, though, so leave Fido at home this time.
On all sides of the park you’ll find some serious On Top of the World residential and commercial development, so it comes as a lovely surprise to find an oasis from all the hustle and bustle.
I often ask at local book presentations if people have been to Sholom Park. Many hands shoot up. I ask if they would go back. Hands shoot up again. Shalom Park really is that kind of place.
On a side note, bring a quarter to buy fish food, then watch the koi swarm to the surface. If you’re feeling particular lazy, bring a good book or your sketch pad and get in some much-needed “me” time.Who said walking had to be hard work?
Sholom Park is located at 6840 SW 80th Avenue in Ocala and can be reached at (352) 854-7435, (352) 427-1628 or hapi-info.org.
Walking With Friends
Sunnyhill Restoration Area
The mailing address might be Umatilla but do not be dissuaded. Sunnyhill is actually in Marion County off County Road 42.
A former muck farm, Sunnyhill’s 4,000 acres were purchased by the St. Johns Water Management District to assist with the restoration of the Ocklawaha River. The farm stretches along nine miles of the river.
Old levees make excellent walking paths—flat and mowed with great sight lines. The elevation allows walkers to see long distances and you never know what you might come across. Wading birds are winter visitors and sand hill cranes like it so much that these long-legged birds often stay all year round. So take note birders—bring your binoculars!
A few things to keep in mind when considering a trip to Sunnyhill—first things first, there is no admission charge and there is no running water. A portable toilet is available (so you know the drill there). Nearby recreation activities include horseback riding, wildlife viewing, bicycling, picnicking, primitive camping and bank fishing. Whew! You may want to make a weekend trip come to think of it.
Okay, back to the walk. You’ll begin at an old farmhouse (known as the Blue House) and make your way to an observation tower. Total hike? A very doable eight-tenths of a mile. Free trail brochures are available and make navigating your way a breeze.
Check out the farm’s website at sjrwmd.com.I’ve been told that this month the Marion County Parks and Recreation Department plans to partner with St. Johns and begin tram rides at Sunnyhill.
Sunnyhill Restoration Area is located 5.9 miles east of Weirsdale on the north side of County Road 42. For information visit sjrwmd.com or call St. John’s Division of Land Management at (386) 329-4404.
Want More Walks?
50 Great Walks in Florida by Lucy Beebe Tobias is available in Marion County at the following locations:
Appleton Museum of Art
Barnes & Noble
Brick City Center for the Arts
Chelsea Coffee Company
Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center